We’ve had a series of posts this week (from Michael, Rick, and Addar) about the vexed question of how to measure corruption–including controversies over whether the popular perception-based measures, like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), do so accurately enough to be useful proxies.
But in addition to that discussion — and picking up on something Rick touched on in the latter half of his post — I think it may be worth raising the questions whether: (1) something like the CPI might have desirable effects even if the CPI score is not a particularly good indicator of true corruption, and (2) whether the CPI might have bad effects even if it’s actually quite an accurate measure. To be clear, my very strong predispositions are that we should try to produce and publicize accurate measures of corruption. But it’s at least worth thinking about the possibility that the social value of an indicator may not depend entirely on the accuracy of that indicator–and about what implications might follow from that observation.
So, first, let’s suppose that, as many critics have argued, the CPI rankings are not particularly accurate indicators of corruption levels. Maybe we’re pretty confident of the extreme cases—corruption is likely a bigger problem in Nigeria than in Finland, for example. But we knew that without the CPI; the CPI gets a lot of attention because it purports to evaluate, say, the amount of corruption in Ethiopia relative to Indonesia, or to compare Argentina with Brazil, and so forth. Let’s suppose that for most of the countries in the big mushy middle, relative CPI rankings are not much better than random noise, with very little connection to “true” corruption levels.
I think you could still make a case that the impact of the CPI on the world has been positive, for two reasons. First, and most straightforwardly, perceptions of corruption also matter, even if perceptions are not that closely correlated with reality. But even putting that point aside, it’s possible that the publication of the CPI has raised the profile of anticorruption generally, to good effect. People, and media outlets, love lists and ranks and numbers; publishing a list gets people talking and arguing and generally paying attention to an issue they might otherwise ignore. On top of that, since virtually all developing countries get a less-than-ideal CPI score, the publication of the CPI may give domestic political constituencies a rallying point–and some leverage–in putting pressure on the governments in some of those countries to do something about the problem, which might be a good thing even if it turns out that the relative CPI rankings were not well-grounded in reality.
Now, to flip this around, let’s suppose that the CPI is in fact a reasonably good proxy for actual corruption levels, so that the CPI rankings are not too far from how countries would rank if we could observe “true” corruption. Might the publication of the CPI nonetheless have some undesirable effects on the struggle against corruption? There’s an argument that it might: Perceptions of corruption can become a self-fulfilling prophesy: the belief that corruption is widespread causes corruption to remain widespread, or to become more so. After all, there’s evidence that people often behave how they expect others to behave, or in ways they think are socially acceptable. So showing people that their country is more corrupt than they thought might further erode norms against corruption, or engender despair or apathy. If that were the case, then we might elicit more honest behavior if we could convince people (inaccurately, at least at first) that honest behavior is in fact the norm.
Again, I want to be clear that I’m not endorsing either the suppression of accurate information or the dissemination of inaccurate information. My view is that the social value of corruption indicators probably does depend, more than anything else, on their accuracy, not least because these indicators are used in subsequent research to figure out what anticorruption tools work and don’t work. But it’s important to recognize that indicators like the CPI are not just data sources for other research; their publication has independent effects on anticorruption politics and policy, and at least some of those effects, both positive and negative, may not depend entirely on the accuracy of the indicators.